Sarah Jaffe Is No Longer The Folkie You Remember. And That's OK.
She's taller than I remember her being. Or maybe she's just standing with better posture.
Tough to say.
Either way, it's the first thing I notice about Sarah Jaffe when we meet up for a bite at CrushCraft in the Quadrangle and a chat just a few days prior to her August album release show at the Majestic Theatre for Don't Disconnect, her third LP.
It seems to signal one thing, for sure: Jaffe's a far more confident person these days, a far cry from the shy, bespectacled singer-songwriter I first remember encountering and becoming enamored with upon moving to Dallas in 2008.
Well, maybe not entirely: “I can’t eat with chopsticks,” she announces with a self-deprecating laugh before settling on an order of fries that she can pick at with her fingers.
Ah. There are the familiar insecurities, the ones that made her earliest songs such gripping listens.
In most every other way, though, it's tough to tell that this is the same woman. These days, her hair close-cropped and platinum blonde rather than long, brown and grown seemingly for the exact purpose of hiding her face. She's stylish as all get out these days, too: Rather than misshapen and a few sizes too big, her clothes at this meeting — and most every encounter with her in recent years — are both chic and form-fitting.
These are, of course, but superficial observations. But they're indicative of something else, too. Evolution is perhaps the clearest narrative in the Jaffe storyline. After having etched her way into the hearts of of North Texans and international fans of unheralded singer-songwriters alike with such acoustic-driven tracks as “Even Born Again” and, most notably, “Clementine,” Jaffe has essentially eschewed that sound in recent years. In its place, a more electro pop–oriented sound has been pushed to the forefront.
And, really, that's just the start of the change. In addition to her own work, Jaffe's also linked up of late with the Grammy-winning, Dallas-based hip-hop producer Symbolyc One to form a songwriting tandem called The Dividends — an outfit that, already, has earned a Grammy thanks to S1's production work and Jaffe's vocals on the song “Bad Guy,” which kicks off Eminem's The Marshall Mathers LP 2 from last year.
Tonight at Trees, meanwhile, Jaffe's sonic progression will once again be pushed to the forefront. Though she's technically being billed as the night's headline performer, Jaffe and the venue alike have made it clear that this won't be your standard show: Rather, she and her fellow performers on this bill — Dallas hip-hop stalwarts Bue, The Misfit and Sam Lao — have all been announced as having the same 9 o'clock set start-time. Early reports also indicate that Symbolyc One will also be making an on-stage appearance at the show.
There's a reason for this kind of spectacle, too: Tonight's show will also serve as the release show for a new, just-announced EP called Visions, which features a new Dividends track, and unreleased cut from the Don't Disconnect recording sessions and various, even more hip-hop- and electro-oriented remixes of Don't Disconnect's songs.
Careful recent observers of Jaffe's shouldn't be surprised by any of this, of course. This is the new Sarah Jaffe, the performer she always wanted to become. That much was clear in our August talk, wherein we discussed her sonic transition, her upbringing and her thoughts on having collaborated with Eminem.
I wanted to start by asking you about the song “Revelation” on Don't Disconnect. There's some heady lyrical, dare I say religious, content in there. And beyond that, it's a mostly electronic song, which is a big difference from your earliest material. What can you tell me about how that song came to be?
When I wrote that, it was all acoustic. But I went into it with the knowledge of, “OK, this is just me.” I've got me and my laptops and I’m in Marfa. I’m gonna do this — I'm gonna build as many layers as I can right now. Just the parts, just the melodies. And, when I went in [Don't Disconnect producer and Midlake drummer] McKenzie [Smith], I went, “OK, this is acoustic, but I want every single part of this song, every single part to be synth.” And, right off the bat, he was like, “Totally. OK.”
Why not keep it acoustic?
It’s the same story: You play the same instrument all your life, and it's tough to be inspired by it when you're used to hearing something,. Being in a studio with other creative energies can really help out with that.
It seems like it's an important song to you.
It is. It just changed so much with the instrumentation. I wrote it completely with the acoustic guitar and then, in the studio, I said “I don't want any guitar.” It's just a natural thing. It's a growth.
Definitely. Listening to this record, it's tough to even determine that this the same person who released Suburban Nature.
It is different. Of course it is. It's a number of things. I didn't know my own rhythm in the studio back then. I didn't know how to move about or speak openly. It was a timidness. And, of course [Suburban Nature producer] John [Congleton] helped with that. But that record is four years old. And the songs are, like, 10 years old. That's the way they were written. I think one of the main things is that I couldn't get past those songs. I had to say, “OK, here it is,” before I could move on creatively. I had to record those songs. I wouldn't change that record. Not one thing on it. But if I could go back and make another record like that, I wouldn't.
I know your fans still love the Suburban Nature stuff, though, even if that doesn't seem to be you at all any longer.
There's always going to be some sort of internal battle. Once I started touring on Suburban Nature, something shifted mentally for me.
It became work. It's everything I ever wanted. But when I say, “OK this is my job,” I say that with a realization and an awareness of how unstable [a career in music] is. Like, OK, I can tour. But I really couldn't tour if I didn't have a label to back me. So it’s not just me. It’s many people working together with many moving parts. I was fortunate enough to have a label [Kirtland Records] come along and say, “Hey, we’d love to finance a lot of these things and put you out on the road.” They've been fucking pivotal. That relationship I have with Tami [Thomsen of Kirtland]… I mean, I feel like she's my good friend, but she's on my team, too. She's a total badass. But touring can be a hit or miss. You'll have some nights where you play in front of a decent-sized house, but it can just be really unstable. Like, I can play Dallas and sell out a show, but, across the country, I’ll play in front of three people. That's the industry. And, at the end of the day, I wouldn't have it any other way. I just know that I fucking love it.
In addition to Kirtand, you've had tons of support from some heavy-hitters from around here over the years. Can we talk about your relationship with some of those people?
I'd love to!
Let's start with your old Denton pals in Midlake.
They were my very first and only European tour. They took me out right before Suburban Nature came out in 2010. It was after Even Born Again and I had a few copies of Suburban Nature to take with me. I signed with Kirtland Records, like, literally right before I got on the plane. I toured with them in the States a little bit before that. They're huge over there in Europe. Like, huge. You see them around here and they're just, like, your homeboys. Sure, they're some of the most talented musicians you'll ever see, but then you go to Europe with them and we're playing cathedrals and playing venues in Liverpool that the Beatles played. For me, character is everything and integrity is everything. You have good shows and you have bad shows, but their temperament, it's great. Musically, they're incredible and just insanely good at what they do. But, to me, what's more impressive is that they're just solid guys. They're men of their words. And they're all very active in their community. In the music business, there's a lot of talk — and everyone’s guilty of it, everyone runs their mouth — but those guys always fucking follow through.
You've toured with the Old 97's, too.
They're just so nice. When you've been a band for as long as the Old 97's have been a band? It's crazy. I mean, Rhett Miller is one of the nicest people I've ever met. Everyone has a breaking point — but they don’t! And then there's just their showmanship. They put on a badass show every single night. They're all super good guys. I mean, I'm a nice person, but I have my moments. The core of me is a nice person. But if you test me, I can break. But that's just the way that it is. We’re middle-class touring musicians. But those guys? They never break.
Most recently, you toured with the Polyphonic Spree. I know from tour diaries we've ran of theirs how hectic that experience can be.
It was my first tour with them, and just the amount of energy they put forth every night is nuts. I mean, we played everywhere from Fitzgerald's [In Houston] to bigger clubs and even some not great venues. They're just champs. Anything you throw at them, they're just like, “Yup!” The very first show, the starter [on their bus] exploded. Everything you throw at them, it just rolls off their back, That's the thing: Shit happens in general, but when you’re on the road, everyone misses their family and their loved ones, and when you combine all those personalities all together, you have to become a makeshift family. We operate as a family [on the road]. We fight as a family, we drink together, we have fun and, at the end of the last show, right when you're getting comfortable with it all, it's time to go. Then, soon as you get home, you're itching to get back out. With the Polyphonic Spree, specifically, watching that many people on stage just alone is enough to be wowed by. It's impressive, it's infectious. And they operate as a unit. I felt a closeness with Tim, especially. There's just a feeling that, when you just meet someone you click with, you know. And we had that. They're good, good people. I already miss them! I didn't really know them before the tour.
What about your Kirtland labelmate Bob Schneider? You've played a lot with him, too. What has he taught you?
He's extra silly. Bob is constantly creating. He's just incredible to me. The fact that he's created all of this art and these songs, and also all of these things around him. Like, he's always just doing something. And he's always trying to encourage others to do things with him. He's got this songwriting project — I can’t remember how long ago this was, but it's a songwriters circle, actually, where he gives a bunch of songwriters a subject and they all pass their songs around. He's done it a few times, I think. He had this great understanding of what it is and how hard it can be, and he has this very smart way of dealing with it and acknowledging that songwriting is hard and that we can do something about it. He acts on things.
Is songwriting something you struggle with these days?
There were a few moments on this album where it was, “I don’t know what I’m doing.” At this point, I feel like others' creative energies is kind of a necessity for me. Just hearing other people playing parts and hearing things that you hadn't heard before. Like we would come in [to Redwood] on a few of these and the songs were just half done. We had a verse and a chorus. And while McKeznie was tracking drums, I would finish the song, because all of a sudden I could hear beats and new parts. I had like four or five songs finished when we went into the studio this time. It's always going to be different. I may have certain ideas and certain parts but we’ll work on them in the studio. But it was a confidence thing. I was at a roadblock and I needed that applied pressure of just being around other people and having those instruments, ones that I don't have and just being in that environment. It's almost instantaneous. You walk into the studio and here it is. Here's the moment that I feared all along, that it wasn't going to happen. And, after Day One, it’s just like, “OK.” I know we tracked “Revelation” on the first day of recording. I think we tracked some synth parts. And then it was just this ease, this feeling, this natural high that you get from building something.
You really like collaborating with producers, it sounds like. You don't like the guy who just sits there and presses record.
I appreciate both. I like the creative freedom, too. But with John and McKenzie both, they let you explore and take chances, but they also guide. And there's so much to be said for that. It’s a tough thing to do and a tough line to walk. There's been such a great understanding and a really fortunate relationship with both of those guys. There's been an honesty there. And I can honestly say I've never been offended in the studio. The only time I remember there being any kind of tension was when recording “Clementine” with Congleton. It was just… I don't know. That song's always going to be there.
I know just from seeing you perform it in recent years that you're not exactly in love with that song any longer.
It kind of makes me uncomfortable, like reading my own diary. I'll look at old journal entries sometimes — but that's what it feels like. You cringe when you read that stuff. It's weird.
I feel like “Revelation” is similar, though. I don't think it's tough to interpret that as a really personal song for you, what with its religious overtones.
Absolutely. A lot of it is that it's a huge part of my upbringing. I remember, the first time my parents heard that song, they thought I was giving an opinion about religion. But I'm more saying I don’t really get it and I don't know anything. My parents were never like, “You will do this!” with church or anything. I think they just wanted to give my sister and me a little structure.
So you're not really religious these days.
I wouldn't call myself religious. I think that anything in extremity is bad. There's so many things about Christianity in general, and I have so many Christian friends who are great people. But when you go through a bitter period, you're like, “You're all crazy!” And that's just as ignorant. It really is. I appreciate my upbringing. I look back on it with so much respect, knowing that I don't know. Still, the idea of eternal life is freaky to me. I don’t want to be anywhere for eternity! But who doesn't want to be a part of something greater than themselves?
Is that a greater theme in Don't Disconnect?
For me, personally, this album was about a period time of just being brutally honest with myself and where I was financially, personally. It's like everything. You have moments when you're like “I'm fucking awesome!” And your ego plays tricks on you. When you have humbling moments… My dad said something when I was really young, and it might sound harsh, but I know how he meant it and in context it makes sense. He told my sister and me both that we are both very, very small pieces to insanely large puzzles. We're tiny, almost minuscule, almost insignificant. He didn't mean it like insignificant, but I kind of took something from that. You have to have things in your life that puts things into perspective — things that say you're not the goddamn center of the goddamn universe. What I do is great, and I'm so glad to do it. I'm so fucking glad to maintain a comfortable lifestyle with the people that I love and I get to do it while doing something that I love to do. It's different from what I thought it was going to be in the beginning. But, the point being, there was a time where I was just so wrapped up in my own bullshit. All of it. Everything. The good, the bad.
How does that apply to the album?
It's an introspective record. I'm not being self-loathing. I'm here because of the people that I work with. It's a collaborative effort. I am an artist who wants to have a long career. Longevity is really, really important to me. It's the force that allows me to keep growing. I want to keep working and working. But it's when you’re not working, in those periods of time, that's when you lose yourself a little bit. You disconnect.
Hence the title.
Yeah. It's mantra of sorts. Like, yeah, I'm good enough. The universe may be massive and I may be a small part of it, but I'm a working part. Is my music changing lives? I don't know. But I'm going to keep doing it.
Sounds like you're pondering some heavy shit these days, Sarah.
Not really! It's just that you absorb so much. It's hard to have a sense of self sometimes and not get immersed in other people's things.
Speaking of immersing yourself in other people's things: We've got to talk about that Eminem song. First, though, what can you tell me about your relationships with Symbolyc One and how that came to be?
Oh, man. He is just constantly working. His work ethic, it's not even just admirable. It's incredible. He's been recording with Madonna and working with an elite team of writers. It's just nuts. I mean, I'm one person away from Beyonce through him! He gave me a creative energy and force that I needed. It was writing just for the pure sake and enjoyment of writing. He would send me a track and I would just write lyrics over it. Like, for “Bad Guy,” for example, he just hit me on Twitter and asked if I wanted to write a hook. And I was like, “Hell yeah!” So he sent me the track and I wrote the hook and sent it back to him — just, like, a demo. And then, once we got into a good place with everything, I'd go into his studio and we'd knock out like three or four songs. We just worked so well together and we started building an archive together.
What was it like to hear yourself on an Eminem track?
To be honest, there's a detached thing. You have the music business and you have the hip-hop world, which is what I've kind of learned to be the Wild West of the industry. It was just, like, here was this track that S1 had mailed or delivered to me and it's awesome, and you're stoked about it. I wrote the hook, I came up with the title — and to see that title on the back of the record? Wow. I mean, we both found out that we were the first track on the record about a month out from its release. It was split between two artists. And there's like 14 producers on that song. Like, there's 10 other people. He took one song, and the first half is “Bad Guy” and the second half is an entirely different group of producers that I had no part in. So it's just like “What?” Also, it's not like I'm dealing with Eminem directly. Like, my manager is dealing with like 50 other people in front of him. I'm not like, “Yo, Em! What's going on?” I can't text him. I've never spoken with him. I'm pretty sure he has no idea what my name is. Maybe he knows my voice. It's weird watching interviews with him and talking about the song, and it's like, “Man, talk about the title! You didn't title it!” But that’s how it is. And that experience just solidified that this was something I wanted to do. I've always wanted to write for other artists. This is the first time I've done it where it's a big opportunity. And a big foot in the door.
On a lot of levels, it's arguably the biggest thing you've ever done.
Yeah. I'm not thinking of it that way just because I've put so much more effort into other things I've done. But I like the aspect of just writing and collaborating. And, after you're done writing it, you're just done. Which I love. Yeah, I really do. There's a finality to it. I like working with S1. I want to do more hip-hop. I want to work more with Sam Lao. I mean, you know I love '90s hip-hop especially. I like doing it. If you want to do something, you can. You really can do anything you want to do.
I've got to ask you something else about the Eminem track. Given your own lifestyle, how to you deal with the fact that so much of his lyrical content is misogynistic and homophobic?
I know that that's a thing in a lot of hip-hop. It's a hard thing to say. Like, a lot of people might think I played a big part in that song. I really didn't. When he says what he says, I mean, do I stand behind it? No. And it's not mine. But I think it's a really thin line to walk, judging another artist. I know that he loves pushing boundaries and he's certainly done that. In the comfort of my own home, I have my own opinions about what people say in interviews and how they wanted to be perceived as an artist and what they believe, but I still think that there's an illusion to that. I've done stupid shit. I've said stupid shit. Do I like that he says that stuff? Absolutely fucking not, Do I agree with it? One hundred percent, no. Do I think it's mean? Do I think it stirs up a lot of things for a lot of people, those words, those names? Yeah. Words do a lot of damage. He knows that. He knows it better than most. But it's also selling him an insane amount of records. That's what I’m saying with the illusion thing: You view yourself as an artist and there are a lot of people around you telling you, “This is how you want to portray yourself.” And then there’s how people perceive you. But it's about what you actually think. Do you actually think that this stuff is OK? Or do you think it's going to sell a million records. It's just ignorance, some of his words. But it's not my words. I get weird perceptions all the time — and I have to worry about that. His stuff? It's not mine. I can bitch about it from my house, but I don't know him. I don't know his life. And he doesn't know mine.
You brought up something interesting there, so I want to ask: What do you think people think of you?
I don't know. It varies. Usually, you find out what each person thinks of you at the merch table. Which I love. But when they start making assumptions about you, it's weird. One of the great things about music is that people can think they know you through a song. It's great, but sometimes it’s just an illusion about what you think I might be. Nothing else can do that.
[A Haim song plays overhead.]
Do you like this band?
I do, actually.
I think they’re pretty great. They're a great band. I love it. I fucking love that the bass player makes all those faces.
A lot of people hate that about them.
That's one of the greatest things about it to me! I hate that people say that stuff about her.
People are assholes, Sarah.
Don't I know it. Don't I know it.
Sarah Jaffe performs with Sam Lao and Blue, The Misfit on Friday, February 13, at Trees. Tickets and more information on the show can be found here.